Throughout one of the most bizarre years I've known, running it seems has pretty much been my only constant. And not just my constant, but a year in which I've conquered several milestones running not just my first (and second) marathon, but also a 100km ultra-marathon.
In 2015 I set myself the target of running at least 100kms a month and going into this year, the focus was on my two A game races - my first marathon, Paris, and Race to the Stones ultra-marathon, so quite a step up.
Marathon training began in December, following a 16-week plan and with quite a large group of us running this, long runs at the weekend felt like more fun than training. Within this, I also planned in a couple of halfs running Old Deer Park half in February, and Yeovil in March.
My pace had always been pretty consistent in running and although I'd picked up a few PBs in 2015, it was getting involved in Advent Running which led to taking 9 minutes off my PB at Old Deer Park. I'd expected a 25 day run streak (although I did the full 31 days of December) to have the opposite effect; for my legs to feel fatigued and therefore running a shorter distance in the minimum 30 minute of exercise requirement for the challenge. Instead, I found I had to keep altering my route to make it longer - a lap of the common was no longer far enough.
Old Deer Park half was a great half for that time of year though - lovely and flat along the tow path, but equally unbelievably muddy. I had been warned to wear old shoes, but didn't think it would be that bad, but mud was soon well over my trainers within the first kilometre.
Training then started hitting the longest runs of marathon training and ticking off 30k, 32k and 35k runs before 3 weeks of tapering, and it suddenly seemed crazy that a taper run had become a half marathon, but non the less, Yeovil half in mid-March arrived. I didn’t intended to race this, but rather just use it for the distance, but getting carried away, despite the hills it led to another PB of 1:38:04.
Taking some time off back in Somerset, I then decided to treatment myself to a sports massage to loosen my leg up before the big day. Although painful, I hoped it had done the trick but by the afternoon you thighs were feeling bruised, and when I woke up the following morning I was struggling to walk due to pain my hip. Luckily I managed to get an appointment with my normal physio within a couple of days - he couldn't find anything major, and although I left being able to walk, it began niggling again by the evening.
My leg was still playing up in the morning of the marathon - I knew it would be OK to run on, but took some ibuprofen as we headed to the start pen just in case. If it held out, I also thought a sub 4 could potentially be back on the cards, a big improvement on the week before when the aim and become just finishing.
In the pen we ran into some friends we'd trained with who were aiming for a sub 3:45 so I decided to start running with them and then would tail off as and when I needed to. We set off at a good pace and I kept an eye on my watch, knowing a 3:45 meant an average pace of 5:19 per km. We were a little slow at around 5:23 p/k but it was just so much fun.
Whether I'm aiming for a time or not, I think the most key thing about running is about enjoying the experience and so we made of the most of it messing around taking selfies and really taking in the atmosphere. At around half way, we lost Alejandro finding out later he'd had to pull into a medical tent, and at 25k I lost Julian as I began to make the most of the downhills leading into tunnels along the Seine. Running solo really changed the game and at 35k I began to be aware of every step meaning it was my longest ever run. At 37k the emotion journey began with tears sneaking in, and at the final push through the Bois de Boulogne seemed to last forever before finally coming out of the wood and into the final stretch to make 3:45:54. A huge achievement, but only to find out later, 54 seconds outside of the London good for age time.
Post marathon, I was amazed how much it had also taken out of me mentally. Once back at work a few days later, I was exhausted and my legs felt heavy for about 3 weeks, only starting to feel recovered after taking the advice to do a really focussed recovery run at a 6:30 pace.
Right on time, my focus then shifted to my second big challenge of the year, Race to the Stones 100k.
I'd signed up to this long before Paris marathon and so in order to train, spoke to friends who'd run it for advice and followed the RTTS training plan, building in trails as often as I could, and this is where my love of trails began to grow.
The training plan was tough, but I really expected it to be worse but it seemed to be more about improving recovery time between runs. A great training ground for this a run holiday through the Black Forest in Germany and Endure 24 which I'd also taken part in last year.
This 24 hour event is 8k loops on trail which can be run solo, in pairs of in teams. In 2015 I'd run 5 laps in a team of six, and so wanted to build improve on this. Based on rough lap estimates, we calculated a team of 5 would mean six or seven laps each (so 48 or 56kms respectively) which would be just about right. Learning from mistakes the year before, we also decided to not get too carried away and run single laps to start, switching to double overnight in order to double the rest time to sleep. By morning, we were well ahead of the guesstimate plan and also two laps clear of the second team in our category. At 7 laps each (56k) and 34 as a team totalling 272kms we took first position in our category - such an achievement and amazing team effort.
Next up was RTTS, and it felt good knowing I'd gone into it having trained as much as I could for it. Following the distance in the plan, we'd also built in trail runs in Epping Forest, Richmond Park and along the Seven Sisters coast.
Again, training and running with a friend made all the difference. Training with the same purpose made it fun, and the run itself was great - looking out for each other, enjoying the experience and also supporting each other when it got tough.
People still don't believe me when I say I think running a 100k was easier than a marathon, and although at the time the physical pain was more, if you're expecting to be on your feet for almost 14 hours and it not hurt you're on a different planet - even working in a shop as a teenager, I'd go home with foot ache, so pounding on the rocky trails would always be tough. Post ultra though, I was mainly just tired, but again, no surprise considering I hadn't got home and into bed until gone 3am. My legs were a little stiff if I stayed still too long, but so much better than after Paris. I can only put this down to muscle recovery, but also the different type of running between an ultra and a marathon. We were never chasing a time, and had no expectations. It didn't matter what pace my watch said, it was about listening to your body, refuelling sensibly and conserving energy when possible.
With my two A game races complete, and no training plan to follow for the first time all year, I just kept running ticking over with long runs of c20k at the weekend.
I do think it's pretty bad that I'm terrible at getting away to visit friends and family, but put a race on, and I'm there with bells on. So my next race, Maverick Somerset, also gave me the excuse to head back home for the weekend.
The would be my first Maverick race, having had to pull out of the Dorset event earlier in the year due to transport problems, and so I set off to Kilve Court, where we used to go on residential trips at school, on my own and not really knowing what to expect.
It was great to see that despite being known as the toughest Maverick race, that there were so many women there and it was certainly the gossip n the toilets pre-race. Lining up at the start line, we headed out of the gate and began climbing instantly. Remembering that the race briefing had stated we were going onto the top of the Quantocks, I decided pace myself and began walking even when those around me were all still running. Being continuously overtaken is a little demoralising, but my calfs were screaming and I thought a DNF may be on the cards if I wasn't careful. As the climb went on, it opened up and the views across the top of the Quantocks were just incredible. Heather and yellow gorse covered the heaths and its moments like that that really make me think how lucky I am to have the opportunity to run and explore places like that.
The course wound around the top of the Quantocks and then down into a valley, through forest terrain, and winding around streams before climbing back up to the top before the final - just spectacular, and was chuffed to finish as 10th female in 2:47.
A couple of weeks later I was also running the Maverick Kent race and so after Somerset, couldn't wait.
Travelling to the event with the North Face Never Stop London team, I want sure how the race would go as I'd given bloody earlier in the week and the couple of runs I'd done since hadn't felt great. I set off and knew I just needed to listen to my body for this. Again, the route was great, winding through fields and forests and past incredible boulders covered in rock climbers. Taking it easy, I had to walk even on some flat sections, and had a proper break at one of the final aid stations in order to refuel. Finishing in 2:14 was a reasonable way off where I should've been, but races aren't always about times and PBs, but sometimes using them to learn from.
Back in London, still covered in mud, I headed straight to Euston to head north to run a trail 10k my friend had organised. Knowing I'd struggled that day, but equally not wanting to let her down, I was a bit torn what to do, but with a 3 lap course, I knew I could walk and stop if I needed to. However, in the morning, I felt much better and stronger than I had the rest of the week so not only finished the race in 53:36, but also third female, which considering the hills on the course as well, wasn't a bad effort.
The following weekend I was offered a last minute place in Richmond Run Festival half marathon, but with another place in Berlin marathon in two weeks as well, although I was undecided about going, I ran Richmond but focussed on keep the pace slow in order to make it more of training run. I knew if I went to Berlin I'd be able to do the distance, but I really wasn't marathon ready and was unlikely to get the sub 3:45 I'd just missed in Paris.
The Tuesday before Berlin when I really decided I'd go - too hard to pass the opportunity up, only to then be called into hospital for more tests as part of an ongoing condition I have. Having an endoscopy Thursday morning, I had to bypass having sedation due to flying that afternoon, and was unfortunately in a reasonable amount of pain until Saturday evening, the night before the race. As a result, I put the 3:45 out my mind, with the intention of running it to enjoy it and would hopefully still just keep it to a sub 4 hour.
Running with Ash, he was keen to still push for the 3:45 as he knew that's what I really wanted, and we set off at a good pace. At 27kms though I knew I was in trouble. Too dehydrated, I was taking on too much water, needing to drink at every aid station. Getting around, I just tried to keep focussed on the blue line and Ash, trying to take on strength from him. As we hit the last 5k, I was in a really bad place. Wheezing and gasping for air I thought I might collapse on at least two occasions, almost crying several times, finally ten Brandenburg Gate came into view. Crossing the line in 3:44:22 Ash had got me there with 38 seconds to spare. Two months later, I'm still so pleased to have cracked the 3:45 barrier, but found the race so tough I still can't look back on it with enjoyment and so it's back on my list to rerun in a couple of years.
After Berlin, one thing that I really noticed was how quickly I'd recovered. My legs were a little sore going down stairs the following day, but in comparison with Paris almost 6 months earlier, it seemed the training I'd done had paid off. I'd also slowly noticed this on long runs, particularly when out on trails and hills - where a few months ago I would've walked, I was aware I was strong enough to run them, and using techniques to conserve energy and avoid fatigue in my legs. Running is just like anything else, over time you improve but there's also always sometime new to learn from people more experienced.
Returning from Berlin, I came home to find I'd won another place in a race, and so Oxford half looked to be my final race of the year and another excuse to catch up with old friends there.
Although I don't enjoy doubling back on a course, the route for Oxford was really nice and when doubling back it was quite something to see such a sea of runners on the road. Due to struggling race wise for the last couple of months, I took the race easy despite actually feeling pretty good. Finishing in 1:41, I was only a few minutes off by PB and equally felt like I still had energy in the tank - finally feeling like I was getting back in the game.
Now firmly heading into winter, race season is at an end, but running isn't. Taking part in Advent Running’s cross country team we have four races across the season from November to February which will help keep my focussed and hopefully improve my times and techniques running on trail. To support this, I'm also finally getting involved in Parkruns and ran my first at home in Montecute on a stunning course, and my second yesterday in Fulham. I've also begun cycle commuting to work, partly because the journey to my new office avoids big roads along the river so it isn't too dangerous (hopefully!) , but also because with winter here, running in the dark on your own can be unsafe.
I've run commuted usually once a week for a while, but running home from my new office a couple of weeks ago, despite knowing the route inside out didn't account for two parks on it being absolute pitch black and also eerily empty, and as I ran through there, I just kept realising I'd out myself into a bit of a silly situation. Cycling will hopefully not only be safer, but will also help me as a cross training exercise and helping to strengthen my glutes which are definitely an area of weakness.
Looking ahead to 2017, I would love to run OCC, part of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc series, and acquired the points needed at RTTS this year. At 55kms and 3500m elevation, this is the shortest of the series offered regards to the elevation and altitude will require some serious training. Should I secure a place in the ballot, my training and other races will be designed to support this - possibly looking at running the Cortina Ultra Trail (48kms, 2600m elevation) as training for this, and of course, the Maverick races and new series Buff will offer more opportunities.